The Wu-Tang Clan are a large group of lyricists who have assembled an intriguing microcosm of their own culture, both in music and in business. Their aliases are a menacing bunch of terms such as Ghost Face Killer and Inspectah Deck, and their lyrics aren’t pretty. However, like a great deal of hip-hop artists, the Clan demonstrates an authentic portrayal of urban grist. The band also has very unusual and progressive business arrangements which have been the focus of much attention and commentary within the record industry.
In Melody Maker, writer Simon Grice said “when he hears the Wu-Tang Clan he hears New York”—not the pretty tourist friendly version of NY but the gritty, subway screech sort of variety. He described “crack pipes, garbage blown alleys, and cockroaches.” Appropriately, the members responded, “It’s our sound.” The bands symbiotic relationship with its hometown began many years ago in the streets of the notoriously tough city.
All Wu-Tang members were born in either the outer boroughs of Staten Island or Brooklyn, and have known each other in various incarnations since childhood. “The crew goes back to when we were nine, ten years old. That’s when we started experimenting with rapping,” RZA explained to Billboard Magazine, “Back then, we called what we were doing MCing though.” The Clan’s roots run deep. RZA and Raekwon were elementary school companions. ’01 Dirty Bastard, The Genius and Raekwon are cousins.
Committing petty crimes and rehearsing in the basement, the boys developed the Clan hypothetically when they were barely teenagers. Instead of buying clothes and more youthfully cherished items, RZA brought DJ equipment and is said to have stolen his clothes. In 1991, RZA, Genius, and The ’OI Dirty Bastard finally put their talents together to form the Wu-Tang Clan.
Both the group’s concept and name were derived from basic martial arts principles. Wu-Tang means “sword family” and is considered one of the deadliest styles of the martial arts. RZA who besides being a lyricist is the group’s producer, claimed he chose the name after reading in the Bible that Jesus said, “the tongue is like a double edged sword.” RZA thought the group had the best lyrical techniques around, that they were unchallenged in that area; therefore he applied the concept to the band’s name.
The band’s particular musical style interjects snippets of mafia movie dialogue over lyrics detailing the brutal reality of ghetto life. Their realistic urban rhythms have brought much attention to their music and have in turn generated a large fan base.
Members: Robert “RZA” (Prince Rakeem) Diggs, producer and MC; Jason “The Rebel INS” (Inspectah Deck) Hunter, MC; Clifford “Method Man” Smith, MC; Russell “’Ol Dirty Bastard” Jones, MC; Raekwon (Ray-KWON), MC; Dennis “Ghostface Killer” Coles, MC; Gary “The Genius” Grice, MC; Lamont “U-God” Hawkins, MC; Elgin “Masta Killa” Turner, MC. All members born in the outer boroughs of NYC—Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Band formed in 1991; released single” Protect Ya Neck” (Wu-Tang label), 1991. Signed to Loud Records 1992. Enter The Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers), RCA/Loud Records released 1993.
Awards: Artist of the Year-Group, Sourc. Awards 1994, 1995, for Enter The Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers).
Addresses: Record company —Loud Records, 205 Lexington Avenue, fourth floor, New York, NY 10016; phone (212) 448-8300
When the band first began making demos, they were unable to obtain what they deemed an acceptable record contract. Record labels had offered them extremely small advances—as low as $200,000 for all eight members. Instead, the Clan members pooled their money together. Each member contributed $100 apiece in order to release “Protect Your Neck,” their first single in1991, on the Wu-Tang label. Following the single’s release, the group set out on its own promotional tour selling copies of “Protect Your Neck” out of the trunk of their car all the way from Virginia to Ohio. lt quickly hit a spot with college radio stations, clubs, and in the ever burgeoning hip-hop scene of New York. Many labels initially uninterested in the Clan were now attempting to coerce the band to sign with their respective companies. Instead, the Clan chose to go with Loud Records—a then-small, unproven rap label. Loud picked up on the buzz generated by these rhyming beat-masters and subsequently inked a contract with the group in 1993.
The Wu-Tang Clan released their first album Enter the Wu-tang Clan (Thirty Six Chambers. in November 1993. The title refers to two special martial arts concepts. One explanation: there are 36 points on the body and 10 degrees between each point—an equation adding up to a perfectly balanced 360 degrees. RZA explained the second meaning of thirty-six chambers to Billboard Magazine. “During ancient times, for one, young monks went to Shao Lin to study the Wu-Tang Style. It was all done in secret and students became masters only by advancing through all 35 chambers in the process. One day one of the Monks decided to take the technique to the whole world. The world became the thirty sixth chamber, which would complete a circle. That’s what happened with Wu-Tang Clan. We were doing what we were doing on Staten Island for years and years. Nobody outside of here knew there was rap talent we took it to a whole new level. We christened Staten Island Shao-lin.”
The band’s next full-length single maintained a spot on Billboards rap singles chart for over 25 weeks. Subsequently “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” otherwise known as “C.R.E.A.M,” managed to touch a raw nerve with its provocative lyrics. The song questions that drug money may be the only way out for young urban blacks. It also illustrates the reality of crack addicts and the sort of urban reality which most people want to avoid. The single placed number three on the rap singles chart, number one on the maxi singles sales charts and a top 60 on the pop singles chart. “C.R.E.A.M.’ really says what we went through to get this money. And cash really does rule everything around me but it doesn’t rule me. That’s how come we got it,” explained Wu-Tang Master mind RZA to the New York Times. “It’s good because we came from the bottom of the bottomless pit.”
The Wu-Tang Clan’s most surprising feature may very well be their savvy business tactics which have proven quite unique and successful within the music industry. Instead of shopping around for a large record label to sign them after the success of single “Protect Your Neck,” the Clan opted to sign with a smaller label. RZA said he learned one of his most crucial business lessons selling marijuana on the streets of New York: “You can sell weed and make a little money but most of it gets made for the guy your selling it for. It’s the same thing in the music business except it’s legal.” The group settled with Loud Records because it offered them a unique record deal. The group agreed to receive a minimal advance while retaining full creative control. It also stipulated that each group member would be able to individually sign separate recording deals. RZA strangely encouraged each of the members to seek solo deals with labels not normally known for their hip-hop prowess.
The band felt strongly that producing solo albums with various labels wouldn’t initiate competitiveness among the group but would actually strengthen its position in the marketplace. He was right. Genius signed with Geffen who no longer even had a black music department. Raekwon signed with the Wu-Tang’s RCA label also not known for hip-hop savvy, and ’01 Dirty Bastard secured a contract with Elektra Records. Producer RZA shocked the industry as his prediction proved correct. Each of the member’s solo albums went on to sell at least 500,000 copies apiece.
The Wu-Tang Clan has made an impact on the fashion world. In 1995, the ever-enterprising Clan decided to start their own clothing label, Wu-Wear. In describing the clothes to the Miami Herald, one teenaged fan said, “I like their style, it’s unusual. It’s sort of like ruggish, smooth, hard-core.” The line boasts oversized hockey jerseys with large symbolic W’s, jackets, and t-shirts. All the merchandise can be ordered directly from Wu-Wear’s main store in the Clan’s homebase of Staten Island. Some of the Clan’s stylish marketing gimmicks include gold Vampire fangs as worn by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man and a glass eye also worn by Method Man. The Group has opened other stores in Atlanta and hopes to expand to Virginia and Los Angeles. Rolling Stone has criticized the Clan’s merchandising through song lyrics to impressionable young kids. Writer S. H. Fernando explained that, “over a gargantuan drum beat and simple melody, the hero becomes highly civilized going through a garment renaissance where he swears off Benetton, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne and RZA goes on to describe how the protagonist only buys from black owned companies such as Karl Kani, Cross Colours and Shabazz Naturally.” In response to the criticism of the lyrics in the song “Wu-Wear, The Garment Renaissance” (available on the High School High soundtrack ), RZA responded, “I wanted to do a song that was directed toward the youth. We know what we want to wear”.
Even though the Wu-Tang Clan hasn’t conjointly recorded an album since their debut in 1993, the band has not splintered and instead has thrived on their family-like existence. As RZA explained to the New York Times. “The point is when Wu-tang came together, we vowed brotherhood to each other. When you stick together you can’t lose.”
Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers), Loud Records, 1993.
(With others) Batman Forever (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1995.
Billboard, November 25, 1995, p. 38.
Forty Ounces and a Blunt Magazine, vol. 1, no.3, p. 6.
Four-Thousand Eighty Magazine, November 1995, p. 58.
Melody Maker, August 12, 1995, p. 10.
Miami Herald (International Edition) October 8, 1995.
New York Times, December 8, 1996, p. 34.
Spin, January 1995, p. 6.
Source, October 1995, p. 57.
Additional information obtained from publicity materials provided by Loud Records.
Members: GZA/Genius, vocals (Gary Grice); Ghostface Killah, vocals (Dennis Coles; born 9 May 1970); Inspectah Deck, vocals (Jason Hunter); Method Man, vocals (Clifford Smith; born 1 April 1971); Ol' Dirty Bastard, vocals (Russell Jones; born Brooklyn, New York, 9 May 1970); Raekwon, vocals (Corey Woods; born 12 January 1968); RZA/Prince Rakeem, vocals, producer (Robert Diggs; born 5 July 1969).
Hit songs since 1990: "Protect Ya Neck," "C.R.E.A.M."
Hip-hop had seen large confederations of artists prior to the Wu-Tang Clan, most famously the Native Tongues Family, which included the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, as well as the Juice Crew, assembled by producer Marley Marl and including Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap. However, the talent-stocked Wu-Tang Clan were unlike any alliance that came before them, able to work as effectively en masse as they were on any individual level. Both as a larger unit and as solo artists, the Clan produced more commercially and critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s than any other comparable group.
The Clan's two main leaders—producer RZA and rapper Genius, also known as GZA—were both recording artists prior to the formation of Wu-Tang Clan. The Genius previously had a quiet career on the Cold Chillin' label, boasting one modest hit in 1990 with "Pass the Bone." The RZA was previously known as Prince Raheem and had been signed to Tommy Boy. From there, these two collected talent from around New York, especially the pair's home neighborhood of Staten Island. Given the size of the clan and the differing contributions of its members, it is difficult to delineate exactly who was in the group but the main team included Raekwon, Ghost-face Killah, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, all of whom would go on, in unprecedented fashion, to release solo albums.
The Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993), is largely a group affair. Only Method Man's self-titled song gives exclusive attention to any one member. On the album's other songs, including their first single, "Protect Ya Neck," rhyme duties are split between different configurations of Clan rappers, all of whom have their particular styles and strengths but overall seem equally matched in ability. Their chemistry as a group is explicit on songs like "7th Chamber" and "Can in Da Front," where Wu-Tang Clan builds a lyrical phalanx as each member inspires the performance of the other.
The Wu-Tang sound—derived from their lyrical styles as well as RZA's moody, grimy production—was rough, dark, and stark, a notable contrast to the lustrous sound of Dr. Dre's "G Funk" style, Teddy Riley's pop-influenced New Jack Swing, and the jazzy aesthetics of A Tribe Called Quest. They mirrored this ruggedness in their rhymes with the forcefulness of their delivery and the street perspective of their writing. Though many of the songs on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) are built around braggadocio, songs like "C.R.E.A.M." and "Can It Be All So Simple?" are inspired by the realities of life within underclass projects and on urban street corners. These deromanticized perspectives on death, crime, and violence only enhanced the group's stature for rap fans looking for grittier reality-based narratives and attitudes.
Following Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), many of the Clan members worked on their own solo albums, including the GZA, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Raekwon. The Clan reassembled to release a double-album, Wu-Tang Forever (1997), whose immense, twenty-plus song length spoke as much to the group's ego as to their abilities. Though it has some impressive offerings, especially "Triumph," an informal sequel to "Protect Ya Neck," the album's sheer length allows for none of the efficiency of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Wu-Tang Clan once again waited several years to release their next group album, The W (2000), though they quickly followed with Iron Flag (2001) a year later. Both albums have their share of strong material, but within the three years between Wu-Tang Forever and The W, hip-hop had undergone another sea change toward a more polished, pop sound (largely inspired by Sean "Puffy" Combs) that had made their gritty aesthetic less appealing. Though they seemed invincible in the mid-1990s, by the beginning of the new decade, the reign of the Clan seemed over though individual members such as Method Man and Ghostface Killah continued to thrive.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud/RCA, 1993).
Wu-Tang Clan, one of the most successful rap music posses of the 1990s. Membership: RZA (real name, Robert Diggs); Genius/GZA (real name, Gary Grice); OF Dirty Bastard (real name, Russell Jones); Method Man (real name, Clifford Smith); Raekwon the Chef (real name, Corey Woods); Ghostface Killah (real name, Denis Coles); U-God (real name, Lamont Hawkins); Inspectah Deck (real name, Jason Hunter); Masta Killa (real name, E. Turner).
Using the same business plan as George Clinton did nearly two decades earlier, the Wu-Tang Clan signed a contract that would allow the individual members of the collective to record for whomever they pleased. This allowed the group exposure on nearly every major label and many of the larger independents, with the diverse financial results and security of a wide distribution base.
The collective started coming together under aegis of DJ RZA, GZA Genius, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (most frequently known by his initials, ODB). Both ODB and GZA had recorded with little success. They brought in RZA as the collective’s beatmaster general and producer. RZA took off from the P-Funk inspired beats of West Coast producers like Dr. Dre, creating something more stripped down and ominous. Bringing in a half a dozen more homiez, the collective took the name WuTang from a piece of martial arts mysticism about an invincible sword and the warriors who wield it.
They self-released their debut single “Protect Ya Neck,” It quickly rose to the top of the underground, becoming a substantial hit, introducing RZA’s musical style as well as the group’s bantering cross-talk between eight intelligent, wise-ass MCs. They received many offers, but their demand for individual artists to record where they wanted caused many labels to withdraw. BMG-distributed Loud records finally proved amenable to their demands, and the Wu-Tang Clan released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993. The album received considerable critical acclaim and slowly built a following. “Method Man” rose into the pop charts. “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” broke them even further, rising to #60 and topping the maxi-single chart. The album went platinum and the Clan was on its way.
Over the course of the next four years, GZA, RZA, Method Man, Raekwon, and ODB all recorded solo albums. RZAs recorded with the hip-hop supergroup the Gravediggaz, which included De La Soul’s Prince Paul and Statsasonic’s Fruitkwan. Their debut album went gold. Raekwan recorded a track with Ghostface Killa for the Fresh soundtrack. Method Man’s Tical in 1994 became a huge hit, with his duet with Mary K. Blige on “You’re All I Need (To Get By)” leading the way. ODB followed with Return to the 36 Chambers, which went gold. In 1995 Genius and Raekwon released critically acclaimed albums. Raekwon’s disc was almost a duo project with Ghostface Killah. Ghostface Killah dropped his solo debut in 1996. ODB recorded the bizarre single “Fantasy” with Mariah Carey. As with P-Funk before them, every solo album was treated like a group project, with different pieces of the group on them.
Additionally, the group created their own line of clothing, Wu-Wear. Image Comics put out a book based on their actual characters and their mythical roots.
In 1997 the group reunited as the Wu-Tang Clan for Wu-Tang Forever. Going gold out of the box and debuting at #1, the album lived up to its build-up as the most anticipated hip-hop album of the year. By year’s end, it went quadruple platinum. Another spate of solo albums followed, with U-God’s Redemption debuting the group’s own imprint, ODB came out with another album, Na, Please, and became involved in several drug cases. Inspectah Deck put out Uncontrollable Substance, featuring most of the group; it sounded like a continuation of the Wu-Tang albums. Method Man recorded a duet with Redman called Blackout that went platinum, as did his Tical 2000.
With a mixture of business smarts and street smarts, the Wu-Tang clan has the right stuff to make hip-hop legends long into the new millennium.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993); Wu-Tang Forever (1997).